The Story of Schwinn

“Schwinn bikes are the best”.
Captain Kangaroo

 

Schwiin Bikes

The story of Schwinn began when cycling in America was skyrocketing in popularity. The Schwinn Bicycle Company was founded by German-born mechanical engineer Ignaz Schwinn (1860-1945) in Chicago on October 22, 1895.

At one-point Schwinn was about as American as apple pie. It is by far the most well-known American bicycle manufacturer and many older models are highly sought after by collectors. The company was helmed by someone with the last name Schwinn for 97 years.

I Schwinn

Ignaz Schwinn 1860 to 1948

Ignaz Schwinn was born in Hardheim, Baden, Germany in 1860 and worked on two-wheeled ancestors of the modern bicycle that appeared in 19th century Europe. Schwinn emigrated to the United States in 1891, where he found similar difficulties.

In 1895, with the financial backing of fellow German American Adolph Arnold (a meat packer), he started the Arnold, Schwinn & Company. Schwinn’s new company coincided with a sudden bicycle craze in America. Chicago became the center of the American bicycle industry, with thirty factories turning out thousands of bikes every day. Bicycle output in the United States grew to over a million units per year by the turn of the century.

The bicycle boom was short-lived, as automobiles and motorcycles quickly replaced bikes on American streets. By 1905, bicycle annual sales had fallen to only 25% of that reached in 1900. Many smaller companies were absorbed by larger firms or went bankrupt; in Chicago, only twelve bicycle makers remained in business. Competition became intense, both for parts suppliers and for contracts from the major department stores, which retailed the majority of bicycles produced in those days. Realizing he needed to grow the company, Ignaz Schwinn purchased several smaller bicycle firms, building a modern factory on Chicago’s west side to mass-produce bicycles at lower cost. He finalized a purchase of Excelsior Motorcycle Company in 1912, and in 1917 added the Henderson Company to form Excelsior-Henderson. In an atmosphere of general decline elsewhere in the industry, Schwinn’s new motorcycle division thrived, and by 1928 was in third place behind Indian and Harley-Davidson.

At the close of the 1920s, the stock market crash decimated the American motorcycle industry, taking Excelsior-Henderson with it. Arnold, Schwinn, & Co. (as it remained until 1967) was on the verge of bankruptcy. With no buyers, Excelsior-Henderson motorcycles were discontinued in 1931.

schwinn aerocycle

1934 Schwinn Aerocycle

 

Ignaz’ son, Frank W. “F.W.” Schwinn, took over day-to-day operations at Schwinn. Putting all company efforts towards bicycles, he succeeded in developing a low-cost model that brought Schwinn recognition as an innovative company, as well as a product that would continue to sell during the inevitable downturns in business cycles.

After traveling to Europe to get ideas, F.W. Schwinn returned to Chicago and in 1933 introduced the Schwinn B-10E Motorbike, actually a youth’s bicycle designed to imitate a motorcycle. The company revised the model the next year and renamed it the Aerocycle. For the Aerocycle, F.W. Schwinn persuaded American Rubber Co. to make 2.125-inch-wide (54.0 mm) balloon tires, while adding streamlined fenders, an imitation ‘gas tank’, a streamlined, chrome-plated headlight, and a push-button bell. The bicycle would eventually come to be known as a paperboy bike or cruiser, and soon became an industry standard as other makers rushed to produce imitations.

1939 schwinn paramountracer

Schwinn was soon sponsoring a bicycle racing team headed by Emil Wastyn, who designed the team bikes, and the company competed in 6-day races across the United States with riders such as Jerry Rodman and Russell Allen. In 1938, F. W. Schwinn officially introduced the Paramount series. Developed from experiences gained in racing, Schwinn established Paramount as their answer to high-end, professional competitive bicycles. The Paramount used high-strength steel chromoly alloy tubing and expensive brass lug-brazed construction. During the next twenty years, most of the Paramount bikes would be built in limited numbers at a small frame shop headed by Wastyn, in spite of Schwinn’s continued efforts to bring all frame production into the factory.

On 17 May 1941, Alfred Letourneur was able to beat the motor-paced world speed record on a bicycle, reaching 175 km/h (109 mph) on a Schwinn bicycle riding behind a car on the Los Angeles freeway.

By 1950, Schwinn had decided the time was right to grow the brand. At the time, most bicycle manufacturers in the United States sold in bulk to department stores, which in turn sold them as store brand models. Schwinn decided to try something different. With the exception of B.F. Goodrich bicycles, sold in tire stores, Schwinn eliminated the practice of rebranding in 1950, insisting that the Schwinn brand and guarantee appear on all products. Schwinn was famous for their quality bikes and their advertisement campaign stressed the fact that their bikes “ride better…last longer…cost less in the long run”. They even had a Guarantee with no-time-limit. In today’s world, you can’t even get a guarantee, let alone with no-time-limit. They guaranteed against all defects in material and workmanship and would replace without charge any original part that was defective.

schwinnguaranteelogo

In exchange for ensuring the presence of the Schwinn name, distributors retained the right to distribute Schwinn bikes to any hardware store, toy store, or bicycle shop that ordered them. In 1952, F.W. Schwinn tasked a new team to plan future business strategy, consisting of marketing supervisor Ray Burch, general manager Bill Stoeffhaas, and design supervisor Al Fritz.

In the 1950s, Schwinn began to aggressively cultivate bicycle retailers, persuading them to sell Schwinn’s as their predominant, if not exclusive brand. During this period, bicycle sales enjoyed relatively slow growth, with the bulk of sales going to youth models. In 1900, during the height of the first bicycle boom, annual U.S. sales by all bicycle manufacturers had briefly topped one million. By 1960, annual sales had reached 4.4 million. Nevertheless, Schwinn’s share of the market was increasing, and would reach in excess of one million bicycles per year by the end of the decade.

1950hornetschwinn

1950 Schwinn Hornet

The postwar appearance of imported ‘English racers’ (actually 3-speed ‘sport’ roadsters from Great Britain and West Germany) found a ready market among U.S. buyers seeking bicycles for exercise and recreation in the suburbs. Though substantially heavier than later European-style ‘racer’ or sport/touring bikes, Americans found them a revelation, as they were still much lighter than existing models produced by Schwinn and other American bicycle manufacturers. Imports of foreign-made ‘English racers’, sports roadsters, and recreational bicycles steadily increased through the early 1950s. Schwinn first responded to the new challenge by producing its own middleweight version of the ‘English racer’. The middleweight incorporated most of the features of the English racer, but had wider tires and wheels.

The company also joined with other U.S. bicycle manufacturers in a campaign to raise tariffs across the board on all imported bicycles. In August 1955, the Eisenhower administration implemented a 22.5% tariff rate for three out of four categories of bicycles. However, the most popular adult category, lightweight or ‘racer’ bicycles, were only raised to 11.25%. The administration noted that the U.S. industry offered no direct competition in this category, and that lightweight bikes competed only indirectly with balloon-tire or cruiser bicycles. The share of the US market taken by foreign-made bicycles dropped to 28.5% of the market, and remained under 30% through 1964. Despite the increased tariff, the only structural change in foreign imports during this period was a temporary decline in bicycles imported from Great Britain in favor of lower-priced models from Holland and Germany. In 1961, after a successful appeal by bicycle importers, the Eisenhower tariffs were declared invalid by the Court of U.S. Customs Appeals, and President Kennedy imposed new a new tariff rate at 50% on foreign-made bicycles, a rate which remained in place until 1964.

1955schwinnpahtom

1955 Schwinn Phantom

While every large bicycle manufacturer sponsored or participated in bicycle racing competition of some sort to keep up with the newest trends in technology, Schwinn had restricted its racing activities to events inside the US, where Schwinn bicycles predominated. As a result, Schwinn’s became increasingly dated in both styling and technology. By 1957, the Paramount series, once a premier racing bike, had atrophied from a lack of attention and modernization. Aside from some new frame lug designs, the designs, methods and tooling were the same as had been used in the 1930s. After a crash-course in new frame-building techniques and derailleur technology, Schwinn introduced an updated Paramount with Reynolds 531 double-butted tubing, Nervex lug sets and bottom bracket shells as well as Campagnolo derailleur dropouts. The Paramount continued as a limited production model, built in small numbers in a small apportioned area of the old Chicago assembly factory. The new frame and component technology incorporated in the Paramount largely failed to reach Schwinn’s mass-market bicycle lines. Another change occurred in 1963 following the death of F.W. Schwinn, when grandson Frank Valentine Schwinn took over management of the company.

By the late 1950s, Schwinn’s exclusive marketing practices were well entrenched in the United States, practices that had ensured a dominant position in the US bicycle market. In order to prevent competition among its wholesalers, Schwinn assisted them by dividing up the national market. Schwinn also strengthened its dealer network, shrinking the number of authorized dealers. Since Schwinn could decide who got their bikes and who didn’t, the company rewarded the highest volume dealers with location exclusivity, as well as mandating service standards and layouts. In response, the company was sued by the Department of Justice in 1957 for restraint of trade. In a ten-year legal battle, many of Schwinn’s practices were upheld by the courts: judges ruled they had the right to have their bicycles sold by retailers equipped to service the bikes as well as sell them. However, in a ruling by the US Supreme Court in 1967, U.S. v. Arnold, Schwinn & Co., Schwinn was found guilty of restraint of trade by preventing distributors shipping bicycles to unapproved dealers. Though the Arnold decision would be essentially overturned in later rulings, the company stopped working solely through independent local distributors and constructed four regional warehouses from which bicycles would—legally—be sent to shops. While this solved the problem of unfair trade practice with the courts, the new warehouses and distribution system cost millions of dollars at a time of rising competition from foreign manufacturers. It also made it more difficult for the company to stay informed of customer complaints regarding manufacturing or assembly problems.

captkangaroo ad

During the 1960s, Schwinn aggressively campaigned to retain and expand its dominance of the child and youth bicycle markets. The company advertised heavily on television, and was an early sponsor (from 1958) of the children’s television program, Captain Kangaroo. The Captain himself was enlisted to regularly hawk Schwinn-brand bicycles to the show’s audience, typically six years old and under. As these children matured, it was believed they would ask for Schwinn bicycles from their parents. By 1971, U.S. government councils had objected to Schwinn’s marketing practices. In response, Schwinn had Captain Kangaroo alter its format. The Captain no longer insisted that viewers buy a Schwinn, but instead made regular on-air consultations of a new character, ‘Mr. Schwinn Dealer’.

stingraychange

The Sting-Ray, known as “the bike with the sports car look,” revolutionized cycling since its introduction by Schwinn in 1963. It won the praise and captured the imagination of young people of all ages across the USA. This was the fun bike that featured a short frame, high rise handlebars and long, bucket shaped saddle, known as the banana seat. This design gave the rider an exciting combination of features for quick maneuvers, fast starts and short radius turns.

By 1969, Schwinn offered several Sting-Ray models for young guys and gals to choose from. One of the styles that was offered for young gals was the Schwinn Fair Lady model. In their 1969 Schwinn brochure, they wrote about the Fair Lady as being fresh, stylish and fun!

myfairlady

The low-contour middleweight frame is easy to get on and off. It came complete with a flower-trimmed basket, Sting-Ray handlebars, comfortable Silver Glow saddle, and chrome plated fenders. The tires were Schwinn tubular rims, 20″ x 1 3/4″ front tire, slick rear tire, and the famous Schwinn built-in kickstand.  The colors offered were, Campus Green, Sky Blue, and Violet.  The Fair Lady sold for $49.95.

Shine On

read about the history of the bike at, Ancestor of all Bicycles

 

Sting-Ray Story

“If someone tells you
that you have enough bicycles and
you don’t need any more,
stop talking to them.
You don’t need that kind
of negativity in your life.”

 

schwinn sting ray catalog

The early 1960s was an era of muscle cars and motor bikes. Here on the West Coast, kids were copying the styles of these motorized counterparts by buying used bikes, customizing their bicycles with “Texas longhorn handlebars” and low-rider seats.

Then in 1962, Schwinn’s West Coast Sales Manager Sig Mork noticed this new trend. He contacted Chicago Schwinn Design Supervisor Al Fritz who traveled West to check out these innovations. Wanting to capitalize on this new bike trend, Fritz set out to create a bike that mimicked these styles with a banana seat and high handlebars, the Sting-Ray was born.

By 1963, Schwinn was selling one of the strangest looking bicycles on the market. Named after the Chevrolet Corvette Sting-Ray (Schwinn had named their first middleweight after the Corvette almost a decade earlier), it was an immediate and unqualified success. It had wide, smooth tires and the craziest looking saddle, the banana seat. The Sting-Ray’s smooth tires were perfect for skid outs. The smaller rims made wheelies easier. And the durable Schwinn’s could still take a curb or even a homemade jump. It ruled the streets of suburbia for the next decade. Every kid had a Sting-Ray or wanted one.

Schwinn Sting-Rays hit the market at $49.95 in five colors: Flamboyant Lime, Flamboyant Red, Violet, Sky Blue and Radiant Coppertone. These first models had a rigid front fork, nylon tires, chrome fenders, a coaster brake and butterfly-style handlebars.

The Sting-Ray was a grotesque distortion of the typical ride, even for a kids’ bike. It was an immediate and unqualified success. Back in 1962, Schwinn sales of 10,000 of a particular model was a big year. However, by the end of 1963, Schwinn had sold more than 45,000 Sting-Rays and couldn’t keep up with the demand. A decade later, the Sting-Ray fathered the BMX from which the mountain bike was born.

myfairlady

In 1964, the Fair Lady model for girls went on sale. It featured pastel paint, a front basket and was an instant success. Schwinn continued to release new models each year.

The most famous Sting-Ray was the Krate. The Krate arrived in 1968 and featured classic Sting-Ray styles such as the smaller 16-inch front wheel than the 20-inch rear wheel, rear shock, and featured Schwinn’s classic front fork spring suspension system. This gave them a forward lean that resembled drag racers and the chopper style motorcycles of the age.

Schwinn Krates

If you had an Orange Krate, Apple Krate, Grey Ghost or Pea Picker in those days, you were a very lucky kid indeed. Schwinn sold over a million Krates between 1968 and 1970. The signature Stik-Shift was banned due to safety issues in 1974 putting an end to the popularity of the bike.

In 1968, Krates sold for between $86.95 and $129.95. If you happen to own an original today in decent shape, these bikes are fetching between $2,000 and $4,000. Recently, a story even surfaced about an offer of $100,000 for the Krate Sting-Ray with the lowest serial number in existence.

Shine On

read my post about, The Story of Schwinn